Restoring our Rivers Bill delivers long-overdue recognition for First Nations, but Government must not defer key unfinished business

Media Release – 30 November 2023

Restoring our Rivers Bill delivers long-overdue recognition for First Nations, but Government must not defer key unfinished business 

MLDRIN welcomes the passage of the Restoring our Rivers Bill through the Senate today, delivering long-overdue recognition and support for Basin First Nations’ water rights.

When the Restoring our Rivers Bill was introduced to Parliament, it was entirely silent on First Nations issues. The advocacy of MLDRIN, other First Nations’ groups and allies contributed to the inclusion of important reforms and support for First Nations in the Bill.

The Bill passed today by the Senate included legislative reforms and resourcing commitments that address some of the recommendations put forward by MLDRIN, other First Nations groups, and allies. These include:

  • Changing the Objects of the Water Act 2007 to take into account spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic matters relevant to First Nations.
  • Strengthening the rules guiding preparation of the Basin Plan to take into account matters relevant to First Nations.
  • Stronger rules for the review of the Water Act, scheduled for 2027, will require consideration of whether the Act is consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
  • A requirement for the review of the Basin Plan, scheduled for 2026, to consider how Water Resource Plans meet the principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
  • Sixty million dollars for the Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program, allowing First Nations in the Murray Darling Basin to purchase water entitlements for self-determined use. This goes some way towards making up for funding commitments in 2018 and 2019, not delivered to date.
  • Twenty million dollars for a First Nations centred and led cultural flows planning program, that builds a critical base of First Nations cultural science to inform water management and acquisition.
  • Appointment of an additional First Nations Board member on the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA).
  • Five-hundred thousand dollars to support First Nations participation in the Snowy Water Inquiry Outcomes Implementation Deed (SWIOID).

These reforms and commitments establish a stronger platform to progress First Nations rights and the ability to fulfill cultural obligations to rivers and waterways.

Brendan Kennedy, MLDRIN Deputy Chairperson, said: “We have never ceded sovereignty over water in the Basin. Water has been commodified, and without financial support, we are entirely locked out of being able to access our rights to water as First Peoples. We are seeking self-determined, Nation driven processes for the water holding arrangements. We have the skills, the knowledge, and the inherent right to hold water in a way that works for us.”

MLDRIN commends the Australian Greens, and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for advancing recognition of First Nations rights through an agreement with the Government.

Grant Rigney, MLDRIN Chair said “The new provision listing First Nations’ in the Objects of the Act is a glimmer of hope and would not have been achieved without the efforts of the Australian Greens and Senator Lidia Thorpe. We continue to seek the full implementation of UNDRIP within the Act and subsidiary instruments as an urgent priority.”

MLDRIN, especially, commends Senator Lidia Thorpe for standing in solidarity with First Nations organisations and groups to secure significant further outcomes, including a commitment to a $20 million cultural flows planning program and inclusion of UNDRIP in future reviews of the Water Act.

Grant Rigney, MLDRIN Chair said “We trust that that $20 million pledged for a First Nations led and managed Cultural Flows Program is a first instalment to ongoing investment. The National Cultural Flows Research Project set out a clear pathway for conducting cultural flows work. It is grassroots work, undertaken by Nations and for the benefit of their Nations. That includes complete autonomy over the funds by Nations. Nothing less is acceptable. Our work will result in the improved health of Country, benefitting all citizens within the Basin.”

MLDRIN commends Water Minister Tanya Plibersek for delivering this critical Bill to restore water to rivers, and for working with the Greens and independent Senators to improve recognition of First Nations rights and interests.

MLDRIN also recognises Senator David Pocock’s support for First Nations involvement in a review of complex management arrangements associated with Upper Murrumbidgee River flows.

Key areas of unfinished business are: embedding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) within the Act, and legislative change for First Nations to participate as partners in environmental water recovery.


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